Wed 23 Sep 2009 – Yesterday’s pledge by an airline delegation at a UN meeting in New York to commit to a reduction in industry CO2 emissions has received a frosty reception by environmental groups, who described it as bogus and little more than an elaborate conjuring trick. John Sauven, Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, said the announcement was designed to make the world believe that the airline industry is serious about climate change while carrying on with business as usual. The Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) said the commitment to reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2050, compared to 2005, had a “huge get-out” as it was not a pledge to cut actual emissions but instead relied on offsetting through emissions trading.
In an article in The Guardian newspaper, Sauven said the aviation industry had at every opportunity stood in the way of any move that would cut emissions.
As the reported leader of the UN delegation, British Airways CEO Willie Walsh bore the brunt of the attacks.
“Once you wade through a speech dripping with corporate greenwash, it becomes apparent that Walsh isn’t actually committing the aviation industry to cutting emissions at all,” writes Sauven. “Rather he wants to pay other countries and other sectors to make these cuts instead.”
Whilst conceding that aircraft had become “slightly” more fuel efficient over the last couple of decades, Sauven said any positive impact had been wiped out by a massive increase in flights.
“The industry also claims that new technology will mean that planes will be even more efficient in the future. But the fact is that there are basic technological restraints that make major improvements impossible to imagine.
“Biofuels are touted as the silver bullet, yet the technology is far from ready, and as we saw during the sudden rush for biofuels a couple of years ago, it can lead to spiralling food prices for the world’s poor and the trashing of rainforests. Even if these massive problems could be overcome, there are serious doubts as to whether we could produce the quantities needed to fuel the entire aviation industry. To rely solely on biofuels, an area three times the size of Germany would be needed to produce enough fuel.”
In a letter to The Guardian, AEF board member Jeff Gazzard said carbon offsets were a significant part of the aviation industry’s menu, but were no substitute for real cuts in emissions.
“We know the aviation industry dislikes fuel taxes and campaigns vociferously against the proxy carbon tax regime that inclusion in the European emissions trading scheme represents, despite pretending not to. Only the extremely credulous will believe that airlines willingly want to raise ticket prices to reflect even today’s low market price of €14 per tonne of CO2, sending themselves an invoice for more than €8.5bn in the process. But it needs to, as a minimum, and right now if we are ever to get aviation’s runaway emissions under control.”
The use of biofuels, he said, was unlikely to deliver the promised “10% by 2017” contribution. “There are no sustainable biomass feedstocks or production facilities that could produce a safe kerosene alternative with a zero carbon footprint or less by then.”
The AEF said in a statement that the industry pledge to reduce net carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by 2050 compared with 2005 levels was far less than the cuts expected from other sectors in the G8 countries, who would be expected to make even greater cuts to make up for aviation.
“There is in any case a huge get-out here. The cuts would allow emissions trading and offsets. This means that the industry does not actually cut its emissions by 50%. Instead, it assumes they can be offset by trading or negotiating with other sectors. But the other sectors have such challenging targets themselves – they will not have any slack to trade with or offset against aviation.”
The AEF said the industry’s ambitions to submit plans to the UN for joining a global carbon trading scheme by November 2010 was intended to pre-empt the Copenhagen climate talks and “substitute for real action and strong targets for aviation a virtually meaningless plan.”
International NGO The Climate Group said it was encouraging to see the airline industry itself call for the inclusion of aviation emissions in a new global climate change deal.
“At the same time, however, the mid-term targets to 2020 [carbon-neutral growth from 2020] proposed by IATA could certainly be more ambitious as they simply reflect business-as-usual improvements in airline efficiency,” said CEO Steve Howard.
“Although it’s true that airlines have limited ability to reduce their emissions directly, the use of market-based instruments such as emissions trading would enable the aviation sector to pay for emission reductions in other sectors immediately and at least cost.”
The Climate Group is working with airlines in the industry coalition, the Aviation Global Deal Group, three of whose members – British Airways, Air France-KLM and Qatar Airways – were part of the airline delegation to the UN Leadership Forum on Climate Change. Last week, LOT Polish Airlines announced it was joining the Group.
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